Mark Harrington: East / West


Mark Harrington: Intuition and Control

Peter Selz, Professor Emeritus of Art History
University of California, Berkeley

"My interest is in experience that is wordless and silent and in the fact that this experience can be expressed for me in art work that is also wordless and silent.", so wrote Agnes Martin in 1972. Mark Harrington, working some two generations later, would, I think, subscribe to this discernment. Harrington's work belongs to and upholds the history of abstract painting, in which the subject of the painting is the painting itself, the configuration of form and color as they exist within the space of the picture.

Abstract painting has a history of about a hundred years. "Abstract" is really a misnomer, as the artist does not depart from the reality of the outside world, but creates his/her own visual presence. Terms such as non-figurative, non-objective or concrete are actually more descriptive. The ultimate source of this art is Plato's rejection of the world of appearances, because the latter obscures fundamental essences. Kandinsky in 1912 wrote Das Geistige in der Kunst (The Spiritual in Art), and it should be noted that the German word geistig refers to the mental as well as the spiritual facility. This conflation is what the Russian Constructivists had in mind and Harrington speaks with admiration of El Lissitzky and of Lazslo Moholy-Nagy, who insisted that intuition played an important part in his exploration of light, space and motion.

Intuition was, of course, essential to Abstract Expressionism and Mark, the step-son of Hassel Smith, himself a student of Clifford Still, and protagonist of Abstract Expressionism in San Francisco, was exposed to Action Painting as he grew up in San Francisco and England. Hassel Smith, as time went on, created geometric, or, what he called "Measured" paintings in the 1970’s. Harrington's current work can be seen as a synthesis of these dialectically opposing trends in abstract art.

In 1966, when Mark was fourteen years old, the Smiths moved to England. Seeing Monet's Waterlilies in the National Gallery and Mark Rothko's Seagram Murals at the Tate were indelible experiences for the young artist. His early pieces were drawings, of continuous lines that were then transposed into three-dimensions. They were informed by David Smith's sculptures that were first seen in Battersea Park, London in 1963. At that juncture Harrington also focused on the works of Henry Moore, Brancusi and Anthony Caro. He made some floor pieces and "sculptures you could walk into". He also learned to make ornamental stone carving and, in 1973, was commissioned to carve a portrait of Queen Victoria to act as the keystone of an archway in Sheffield. After completing his undergraduate studies in sculpture at Sheffield Polytechnic he studied English literature and art criticism at the University of Reading and wrote an essay for publication concerning Duchamp's Large Glass.

In the late '70’s he also worked in the film industry as actor and art director. By the time he had his first teaching position at the Portsmouth College of Art and Design in 1979, he was a young man educated in the history of art and culture as well as a skilled craftsman and technician. At that time he was one of the first artists in Britain interested in environmental art. He also made diagrammatic plans for sculpture, which, before long, became two-dimensional, i.e., his first geometric paintings. His works in oil pigment on paper of the early 1908’s were hard-edge, geometric objects, very different from the facile Neo-geo that enjoyed a brief fashion at the time. Harrington's pieces show his interest in older painters, such as Agnes Martin, Gerhard Richter and Brice Marden. They appear like carefully cultivated fields as seen from the air, but also have a visual rhythm not unlike modern musical compositions.

In 1988 he received a sabbatical from Portsmouth to study contemporary furniture design in Barcelona; he worked there with students and developed a graduate program for Portsmouth and the Royal College of Art in London. Then he decided to take a chance as an independent artist rather then continuing a safe academic career. For some time going was rough, no regular income, no shows or sales. He worked on the design and constructing elaborate tables of wood, plastic and steel, which in their careful craftsmanship had their impact on the structure of the support of the paintings he was to make later.

In 1993 he went back to teaching when he accepted a position at the Vesrlandets Kunstakademi in Bergen, eventually moving on to the Lofoten Islands where he became the director of the most northern art school in the world. There he found himself in a place far removed from the art world that provided him the opportunity to embark on his own pioneering work in post post-modern abstraction. In the mid-90’s he painted on canvas, preferably on linen. He made his own paints from dry pigment and linseed, which he placed on a field of gesso, made from dried chalk and rabbit skin. This gave a luminous back light to the painting, which consisted of textured monochrome fields. At this time Harrington began using a dyptych format adjusting panels of different color into horizontal or vertical compositions. The contrasting colors and textures create a visual tension, a dialectic form of relationship between the two segments with the viewer supplying the synthesis.

After the isolation and peace of Norway, Harrington accepted a grant from the City of Munich in 1999 for a residency in Feldafing on Starnberger See. When this expired he took a studio in a large re-modeled barn in the foothills of the Alps south of Munich. His current paintings are well-crafted objects. He proceeds by first constructing a framework of plywood bars on which he stretches the linen or canvas then chooses color in an acrylic pigment which he has prepared as a thick jelly-like medium and applies it as a monochrome field. After this has dried, he uses his tools – instruments with irregular teeth, which he designed himself, to scan the surfaces with the discontinuous rhythm of his moving hand. Harrington's next operation is to fill the indentations with his self-made pigment, using a spatula to create a smooth surface. He feels that the finished painting is the result of the dynamic between the event of creating the busy colored bands and the silent intervals between them. The beginnings and ends of the color bands can be lopped off and broken away without a trace.

Parallel to the duality between event and interval, there is the diptych form. In Harrington's recent paintings there is almost no perceptible contrast between the two parts as they create a new harmonic whole, which carries a sense of infinity and recalls John Cage's musical compositions which have no beginning and no end and can be seen as fragments.

The colors are of the essence in these paintings and were the initial act of the modus operandi. One color is the base, while the others "corrupt" the monochrome field. The titles are an afterthought, that evolves directly from the color and carry the artist's feeling and the viewer's response. In the present exhibition two pictures are entitled Furies (2008), recalling the Greek goddesses, who were sent to avenge crimes. But Harrington thought of these creatures in connection with the narrow space of these long tall compositions which suggested compressed energy rather than violence. Ishmael (2007) takes its title from the first line in Melville's Moby Dick, suggesting the struggle of the obsessive voyager in search of adventure. Adventure, taking risks, is also the path undertaken by the authentic artist.